Why Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark Didn’t Build on Their Success With ‘The Pacific Age’
No band plans to spend years slogging it out in search of a hit just so they can break up as soon as they find success. But for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, their biggest single proved a sad prelude to an untimely split, which happened after their seventh record, 1986's The Pacific Age.
For much of the first half of the '80s, OMD seemed to actively avoid worldwide pop stardom, playing a brand of moderately radio-friendly synth-pop that earned them a healthy following in the U.K. but landed solidly outside the mainstream in the United States. And just when they seemed to be building some solid momentum, they took a sharp left turn with their fourth LP, 1983's Dazzle Ships, which debuted to harsh reviews and confounded fans.
Ships' reception helped prompt another shift in OMD's sound — this time toward the pop end of the spectrum. With 1984's Junk Culture and 1985's Crush, the band proved they were more than capable of recording in tune with the zeitgeist — and the latter album even gave them their first U.S. hit, "So in Love." But it was really just the opening act for an even bigger success waiting right around the corner.
That hit came in the form of "If You Leave," a song they wrote to order for the John Hughes-penned teen romance Pretty in Pink. Released in early 1986, the soundtrack collected an eclectic blend of tracks from new wave pop bands of the moment, including a number of mid-sized hits in various parts of the world for an array of acts that included Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, and Suzanne Vega. But for most mainstream audiences, the movie's true sound lay in the strains of "If You Leave," which soared to No. 4 in the U.S. after being shipped to radio in the spring of 1986.
"If You Leave" gave OMD a much-needed worldwide profile boost, but it came at something of an inopportune time for the band — they were between records, with Crush already nearly a year old (and minus their big hit single in the track listing). In fact, as the song made its way into heavy rotation, the members of the group were in the studio, making their way into the homestretch with sessions for what would become The Pacific Age.
Bad timing wasn't the only thing that plagued OMD after "If You Leave" struck. While writing and recording The Pacific Age, they continued to tinker with their sound, drifting further from their moody electronic roots and moving toward more polished, expansive arrangements — an evolution assisted by the increased involvement of multi-instrumentalists Graham and Neil Weir, who bulked out the band into a six-piece. With co-founders Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey at the helm and Crush producer Stephen Hague back behind the boards, they tracked a collection of songs that left them sounding more like a band than ever — a very deliberate choice.
"For years people have been telling us that we have more energy on stage than on vinyl, and we thought it was time to capture some of that in the studio," McCluskey told Creem. "Paul and I wrote the tunes the same way as before — using a Fairlight, drum machine, and Emulator. But then we handed over the songs to our band for their input and recorded quickly. It was important to us to use real live drums by our drummer and fit everything else around that, rather than set everything to a click track. Instead of using sequencers, we played all the instruments by hand, to get a manual feel."
While The Pacific Change definitely captured a band in flux, it wasn't a complete departure from the OMD fans were accustomed to. Synths were still a big part of the mix, and Humphreys and McCluskey's distinctive vocals still topped off the songs — and the band still had some forward momentum, as evidenced by the No. 19 U.S. chart peak enjoyed by leadoff single "(Forever) Live and Die." During the lead-up to the record's release, there was every reason to believe "If You Leave" might be just the first in a long series of hit singles.
"It's a phrase that refers to the rise of countries like Japan and China, but in true OMD fashion, the song has a vague, personal viewpoint. It's about someone who's undergoing changes — who may not even be aware of them and can't do anything about them. It seemed to make sense as an album title. We feel this is a period of change for us," mused McCluskey of the album's title. "We're very nervous about The Pacific Age, because we've allowed ourselves to be hopeful for the first time."
Unfortunately, that hope proved short-lived. Exhausted from years of recording and touring, deep in debt to their label after a string of underperforming releases, and at odds over OMD's creative direction, the lineup splintered shortly after the tour in support of The Pacific Age. The band managed only one more track — "Dreaming," appended to 1988's The Best of OMD — before Humphreys departed with two other members of the group to form the Listening Pool, leaving McCluskey to soldier on with a de facto version of the band rounded out by session players.
Yet even after the split, McCluskey and Humphreys continued their partnership — Humphreys made songwriting contributions to 1993's Liberator and 1996's Universal LPs — and they'd eventually find their way back together, long after many fans had given up hope of hearing them perform together again. In 2006, 20 years after The Pacific Age failed to fully capitalize on "If You Leave," OMD's classic four-piece lineup reconvened — a reunion that has not only produced a pair of hit U.K. albums in 2010's History of Modern and 2013's English Electric, but remains a going concern. In 2016, the group toured the U.S. with fellow pop vets Howard Jones and the Barenaked Ladies.
"We have freedom again like we had when we first started out as a band," observed Humphreys during an interview conducted on the tour. "The pressures really got to us in the late ’80s, and we started to make records that we weren’t very proud of, to be honest. We’ve come full circle, and we’re completely in control of our destiny now. We just do whatever we want to do. It’s a great freedom to have as an artist."
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